Great Music of the Decades


Jan. 11, 2012 at 1:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 11, 2012 at 7:12 p.m.

Editor's note: This is the Part I in an 11-part series examining some of the greatest songs in past decades.

Rock was born in the 1950s and thus the artists of that era set the template by which the genre would be defined. The period also saw rock's first legends. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, for example, have influenced generations of performers.

1: Chuck Berry: "Maybellene" (1955)

In the early days of rock music, the guitar, piano and saxophone were vying to be the main instrument of the genre. With Chuck Berry, guitar won. "Maybellene" puts the instrument on full display in ways that had never been done before.

"Maybellene," a song that is simultaneously about his car and the girl he is drag racing with, opens with Berry bending his strings to represent a car horn passing by. The guitarist then uses a choppy beat to further signify movement with the vocal cadence matching. His solo continues the theme of mimicking car horns.

2: Johnny Cash: "Folsom Prison Blues" (1955)

Johnny Cash was, is and always will be cool. The mixture of blues, rockabilly and country made this song quite unique to its time and really set the template for that distinctive Cash sound.

Not only was the song a musical departure, but lyrically as well, with Cash drinking from the country and blues well in a song that mentions prison, trains and mom all in one song.

The song's lyrics evoke dark despair accompanied by a rhythm that emulates a chugging train.

3: Elvis Presley: "Hound Dog" (1956)

Choosing only one song for Elvis is a tough chore, but I selected "Hound Dog" for its quintessential Elvisness.

One of the things that makes the sound of '50's rock so distinctive is the double-bass. Since the instrument is often played by slapping the strings, the double-bass gives songs a pop. The instrument is a strong presence here, along with the drums. The guitar solos rip, this in a time before distortion. Naturally, Elvis' voice is strong, with a gravel edge that is one step from screaming.

"Hound Dog" also proves that in music, simple is often deceptive. What gives the song its rhythmic flavor are, simply, clapping hands. However, the claps don't sync with the drums, but with the bass although, and this is important, not exactly, allowing the song to keep its rowdy edge.

4: Bo Diddley: "I'm a Man" (1956)

Inspired by a Willie Dixon song recorded by Muddy Waters, "Hoochie Coochie Man," Diddley's "I'm a Man" doesn't contain his signature guitar riffs, but does maintain all his swagger and bravado, spelling out "M-A-N" with sneering defiance in the song's defining chorus.

Diddley digs into his blues roots here, singing to a drum beat reminiscent of that found accompanying an old-fashioned striptease. Added to this are a harmonica, maracas and Willie Dixon himself on double-bass.

5: Fats Domino: "Blue Monday" (1956)

Fats Domino brings in New Orleans influences to "Blue Monday," utilizing horns and his magnificent rolling piano licks to go along with a smooth-as-silk voice.

The song is romp through the week, with a need after partying all weekend to rest on Sunday because "Monday is a mess."

6: Little Richard: "Lucille" (1957)

Rock has produced some great screamers: Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey and Kurt Cobain are just a few. But Little Richard was the grandaddy of them all and was the genre's first hard rocker.

Grandiose and flamboyant, Richard shows a vocal range that's stunning as he screams throughout the song without showing any weakness.

In "Lucille," Richard screams the name out in a mixture of begging despair and frustration. Richard sings the verse solo, with the band coming in during the chorus with a boogie-woogie background rhythm.

7: Buddy Holly: "Rave On" (1958)

Born and bred in Lubbock, Holly had a unique sound that was rockabilly with a recognizable Texas flair.

"Rave On" is Holly's hardest rocker, and although he did not write the song, he certainly defines it.

The song starts with Holly's voice building up, a cappella, turning "Well" into a multi-syllable word, almost as if yodeling. This is punctuated as the rest of the combo pounces in at the start of the verse.

The solo break is nifty with its honky-tonk style piano sound.

8: Eddie Cochran: "Nervous Breakdown" (1958)

Another artist who died too young, but Cochran's influence was huge and was possibly the first rock artist to voice teen angst. A phenomenal guitarist, Cochran had a major impact on many of rock's guitar greats.

With that in mind, it's strange that I picked a song that doesn't really emphasize his playing. "Nervous Breakdown" is a double-bass-driven rocker.

The song does showcase Cochran's voice, which shows an impressive (albeit Elvis-influenced) range.

9: Ritchie Valens: "La Bamba" (1959)

In "La Bamba," Valens took a traditional Mexican folk song and souped it up, but kept the song's integrity with its Latin rhythm and Spanish lyrics. The result was one helluva great tune.

Valens died in the 1959 plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. He had only released four songs in his lifetime and three of them were hits.

10: Ray Charles: "What'd I Say?" (1959)

Blending gospel, blues, rock and jazz, "What'd I Say?" advances rock music in leaps and bounds.

Firstly, coming in at more than six minutes, Charles' song breaks the rules of traditional, radio-friendly lengths.

Secondly, the song is broken into four parts. The first part is Charles' long, bouncy intro on an electric piano, which is followed by the verse and chorus. The third part is a full stop, with band members encouraging Charles to continue. This leads to the fourth part, with Charles and The Raelettes performing a call and response that is dripping with sexuality.

This song became even more amazing for me when I discovered that it was pulled together live, impromptu, one evening when the band found it had more time to fill.



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